Whale Watchers Off Orange County Get a Killer View of a 'Super Pod'

...and its Reflection in Newspapers

Eka Lainio:"Once Upon A Time.."

Whale Watchers Off Orange County Get a Killer View of a 'Super Pod'

Saturday, Febryary 3, 1996
Los Angeles Times

DANA POINT- When skipper Todd Mansur got the call on his marine radio, he was 13 miles from a sighting of killer whales. "They were six miles off Cottons near San Mateo Point in San Clemente," Mansur, a skipper out of Dana Point Wharf, said. "We were looking for gray whales but it was the last trip of the day so we went for them."

Instead of finding a small pod of four or six killer whales, Mansur said he was surprised to see 40 to 60 spread across a two -mile area.

"Our passengers got extremely excited about it," he said. "They've seen the 'Free Willy' movies and the National Geographic specials, and to see one of these giant pods was, well, it was an incredible excitement."

Experts say Mansur came upon Southern California's "super pod," a flotilla of killer whales miles from the Orange County shoreline, where they do not pose a threat to surfers and swimmers.

Pod sightings have been reported from Santa Barbara to Baja California. In the past six weeks, whale-watching boats have reported numerous sightings of smaller pods of killer whales and it seems the killer whale has upstaged California's annual migration of its bigger cousin, the gray whale.

But the size of this particular pod has caused ripples of excitement among marine experts. "The question is, where did they come from?" said Dennis Kelly, a marine science professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

Experts at Sea World in San Diego also said the super pod was rare.

"This is the largest number of animals in the California waters seen in one time at one place," said Jim Antrim, general curator who has worked at Sea World for 24 years. "Historically, there have been three or four or five members in a pod, but never this many."

Mansur and other Orange County skippers have reported super pod sightings on Dec. 4, Dec. 29 and Jan. 20. And there are reports that this particular pod has been spotted from Palos Verdes to southern Orange County within the past 10 days. A KNBC news crew filmed the big pod earlier in the week.

Marty Igleheart, assistant manager at Davey's Locker in Balboa, said that after the Dec. 29 sighting, the pod moved to the cast end of Santa Catalina Island.

In addition to the super pod, reported sightings of other killer whales have increased.

"We've seen them five to six times in the last six weeks, and I feel that's unusual based on my experience out here," said Norris Tapp, a veteran skipper from Davey's Locker, a fishing shop.

The exact reason for why they have come to Southland waters is unknown. Some experts theorize the mammals are taking advantage of an abundance of small fish and sea lions off the coast.

"It's unusual for orcas to be down here," said Mary Markus, president of the Orange County Cetacean Society. "It's only in the last two years that we've heard of them in big numbers south of Santa Barbara. However, one year we did have a lot of salmon and a lot of orcas."

Killer whales have not been known to attack humans in the wild. They prefer fish, and Kelly said that the waters off Southern California represent a giant deli for these whales, who prefer to hunt in small pods.

"They're kind of like tourists here in Orange County," Kelly said. "They go to all the local attractions, such as our resident seal population, and have lunch."

Killer whales are found world-wide, but prefer colder waters closer to both poles. Killer whales, which can reach lengths of 31 feet, have distinctive black and white markings with large dorsal fins. They are nonmigratory and, unlike other whales, do not go to one spot every year to calf. But Kelly said they do move within a wide range following food sources, which might explain why they are near here in greater numbers.

When Mansur spotted the super pod, he said, the whales were spread out into smaller groups of four to eight. Kelly believes they were in hunting formation and using their echo location to focus on prey.

"When one spots something, they vocalize with others and usually converge on it and attack," Kelly said.

Experts identify killer whales by behavior, and in Puget Sound in Washington there are basically two types: resident and transient orcas. Kelly said a third type was recently identified that has characteristics of both, yet travel in very large pods. He referred to this third group as offshore intruders.

"If we find out this pod travelled 1,700 to 2,000 miles from Puget Sound, we're going to fill in one of the most exciting gaps of information in some time," he said.

Kelly is working with Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a high school science teacher in San Pedro and American Cetacean Society official, whose project is to photograph and catalog - using distinct fin shapes and markings - as many killer whales as possible.

Meanwhile, the predatory whales have been putting on a show at sea.

"We see the killer whales every few years, probably chasing their food-chain, the seals," said Mark Larson of Seaforth, a whalewatching and charter fishing company in San Diego. "The black-and-white markings are so distinctive, they're hard to miss."

Tapp and other skippers said they do not run their boat's electronic fish finders or other equip ment that uses sonar, because it could interfere with the animal's echo locater.

Recently, when Tapp came upon a pod of killer whales, they first seemed extremely shy.

"They were not going in any particular direction whatsoever," Tapp said. "They were headed south, and milling around about 100 yards off our bow. You could see them snorkel. Next thing you know they're off our stern and then, after that, they were doing 180s, switching directions for about half an hour."

Times staff writer Tony Perry In San Diego also contributed to this report.

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Rauno Lauhakangas